TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s new prison chief on Monday inherited a deficit of about $60 million and a legal dispute over privatizing inmate health care that he says could put his agency much deeper in debt.
Michael D. Crews spoke about the challenges he’s facing as secretary of corrections a couple of hours after Gov. Rick Scott announced his appointment to succeed Ken Tucker, who retired. Crews had been deputy secretary since last year.
“I have total confidence in the people that I have the opportunity to work with here that we are ultimately going to get to where we want to be as an agency,” Crews told reporters.
He began his 26-year career in corrections and law enforcement as a probation and parole officer. Later, he worked as a correctional officer and then had various jobs in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement including director of the agency’s professionalism program and chief of its bureau of standards.
Scott, a former hospital chain CEO who was new to politics when elected in 2010, again has turned to an insider after initially appointing people without Florida government experience to many key posts when he took office nearly two years ago.
His initial appointee as corrections secretary, former Indiana prisons chief Edwin Buss, lasted just six months. Scott forced him out in August 2011 after initial health care privatization bids would have benefited a consultant whom Buss had hired. Scott’s office also overrode a decision by Buss to give MSNBC access to Florida’s prisons for its “Lockup” program.
Scott then appointed Tucker, who had been FDLE’s deputy commissioner.
In a statement, Scott cited Crews’ experience and expressed confidence that he would lead the department with integrity and “an understanding of our ultimate goal to keep Floridians safe.”
Tucker, meanwhile, has landed a new job. U.S. Attorney Pamela C. Marsh on Monday announced Tucker would manage her office’s law enforcement coordination program in the Northern District of Florida.
Crews said Corrections already has begun to reduce red ink through such steps as a freeze on hiring except for positions needed to meet requirements set by law, elimination of nonessential travel and renegotiation of contracts. He said the best example of the latter has been a savings of up to $850,000 through a new deal for toilet paper and paper towels.
Closing more prisons, though, is not being considered, he said. Crews also said he hoped to avoid repeating an accounting trick the department used to balance its budget for the last fiscal year, which ended June 30. The agency took $36.1 million from its current budget to cover its last 2011-12 payroll.
The department is appealing a judge’s decision earlier this month that rejected the agency’s plans to privatize inmate health care except for prisons in South Florida. Losing that appeal could balloon the deficit by an estimated $90 million over an 18-month span, prison officials say.
The case puts the department’s health care workers “in limbo somewhat,” Crews said. “However, in the interim while the judicial process is going on they and we will continue to provide medical care required.”
Another judge last year ruled the Legislature improperly tried to privatize entire prisons in South Florida through the state budget. The Senate then rejected a stand-alone bill to accomplish the same thing.
“I’m all for doing things in ways that we can do them cheaper,” Crews said. “What I’m not willing to do is to sacrifice the safety and security of our officers or the inmates.”
He said he didn’t want to speculate on whether privatizing entire prisons throughout a region would imperil safety and security.
Crews also hopes to implement a prison-to-community initiative already in the planning stages to reduce future costs by helping ex-convicts avoid a return to crime. Currently about a third of all released inmates wind up back in prison.